I’m sure that it would be nobler or higher-brow to do a review of How to Build a Girl while ignoring its sometimes controversial, quasi-celebrity author. A good book (some might argue) should exist in a vacuum and be evaluated on that level. The trouble with that noble goal is that if you’re at all familiar with Caitlin Moran and her massive bestseller, How to Be a Woman, you’ll know that Girl is often little more than a fictionalized account of many of the previous book’s anecdotes from Moran’s teen years. Moran gives herself a new name (Johanna Morrigan), and a gay older brother who acts as her sounding board and oracle for most of the book, but for the most part you’ll be treading through familiar territory.
But when you move past all of the autobiographical bones of the story, what’s left is still a damn good book. Moran’s feverish and funny writing style sets a lightning pace, and yet so much is packed into each paragraph — from pop culture references to profundities and puns — that it feels dense and even important. As much as this is a traditional coming of age story, Moran’s larger themes — feminism and the class system in particular — are handled deftly without overwhelming the plot. Apart from the book’s final chapter, nothing comes off as preachy or essay-ish; nothing feels forced.
As a result, it’s a hard book to classify. It’s not an autobiography, but it clearly borrows a lot from Moran’s real experiences as a teen music journalist. It’s not a Young Adult book, because so much of it is driven by Moran’s reflection back on these times, rather than a pure immersion in the time itself. It’s not even really a book about music, even though so much of the book’s plot comes from the fictional Morrigan’s adventures through the 90’s music scene.
And for a reviewer, Moran’s final gut-punch in the last chapter makes it a hard book to evaluate without falling into a trap. By the end of the book, Morrigan realizes that in the two years she’s been watching and reviewing bands, she’s been ordered by her editors to stop listening to music as a fan. Instead, she’s encouraged to savage everyone she sees for the entertainment value of a colorful review. Worst of all, Morrigan realizes — after having a drink thrown at her by a particularly angry band member — that the kind of writing she’s been doing is dishonest and doesn’t represent her at all, as a writer or as a music lover. And finally that loving music means actually loving it — not dismissing every group she encounters in order to look like a more serious or a more discerning writer.
It is true that a hyper-critical review is often seen as more professional, and that a positive review can come off as fan-ish or as someone neglecting to mention obvious flaws. Negative reviews have their place — and I don’t think that Moran or Morrigan would argue against that — but Moran’s final call to arms in the book is still a refreshing one: don’t destroy something that you love (and that someone has put a lot of effort into) to impress cynical people. And don’t waste your youth, the time at which things should be most optimistic and most possible, being cynical.
So, on that note, is How to Build a Girl a perfect novel? No, and I still think that people coming straight off of How to Be a Woman will feel a little cheated by the similarities. But it was a damn good read that reminds you of why you love to read, and I can’t recommend something more highly than that.